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Monitoring Jokiharju’s Progress

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There have been some ups and downs, but Sabres fans should be thrilled with the 20-year-old’s performance this season

Winnipeg Jets v Buffalo Sabres Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

In an offseason that left something to be desired, the Buffalo Sabres’ most impressive addition came in the form of 20-year-old blueliner, Henri Jokiharju. Right out of the gate, fans of the blue-and-gold celebrated his acquisition from the Chicago Blackhawks for the small cost of Alex Nylander, a prospect who had run out of favor with the organization. As it stands, he is one of just two Sabres defensemen (the other being Rasmus Ristolainen) to have played all 66 games so far, and has avoided becoming a victim of the organizational logjam on the back end.

Though there have been some bumps along the way, Jokiahrju still has the makings of a long-term top-four defender in the NHL. His impact doesn’t jump out in the box score (four goals, and 11 assists thus far), but his positive effect is evident in his underlying metrics. Let’s take a look at how he’s performed in his first full season of big-league action.

As previously stated, his best work came early in the season. This may seem concerning at first, as you would hope he’d get even better as the year marched on, but put into context, his eventual drop-off (and subsequent recovery) isn’t necessarily cause for concern.

On the expected-goals chart above, you can see that during the month of December, his xG differential took a bit of a negative hit. There is an existing perception that this dip directly coincides with his primary defensive partner, Marco Scandella (a player who was experiencing a very impressive rebound year from a poor 2018-19 campaign) being traded to the St. Louis Blues. In reality, Jokiharhu’s xGF downturn came a full month before Scandella’s departure, and actually hit a season-low the game prior to the trade taking place.

Obviously, that move took some adjustment, not only for Jokiharju, but from the coaching staff as well. Regardless, the perception that his success was reliant on that partnership isn’t as straight forward as some believe. Since that point, he’s spent most of his time alongside Jake McCabe. While both he and Scandella are “defense first” partners, their respective dynamics and deployments alongside Jokiharju are pretty dissimilar.

One significant difference came in the form of zone-deployment. With Scandella, Jokiharju was starting in the offensive zone 53.74-percent of the time. Since being partnered primarily with McCabe, that number has experienced nearly an 11-percent delta at 43.01. This isn’t exactly surprising considering McCabe’s typical usage in a defensive role, but may have contributed to a somewhat rocky adjustment for Jokiharju.

While the 20-year-old certainly hasn’t experienced the same “lightning in a bottle” success as we saw early in the season, it is encouraging to see that his numbers with his new partner in a revised role have shown some steady improvement, particularly as of late. Short-term, you would like to see a two-way, puck-moving asset like Jokiharju excel alongside a defense-first counterpart. Although, as he matures, his already impressive gap-control as a defender could result into him becoming a high-level, modernized defensive blueliner, and give Sabres flexibility to utilize him alongside a multitude of partners with different skill sets.

From a team overview standpoint, it’s tough to argue-against the young Finnish standout as one of the team’s top-four defenders. He ranks near the top of the table in terms of both xG and relative Corsi, while posting a positive even-strength WOWY presence both offensively (+4-percent unblocked shots-for per-60) and defensively (-3-percent unblocked shots-against per-60). That says a lot, considering not only the logjam of assets the Sabres have on hand, but also the increased defensive responsibilities placed on the back-end under Ralph Krueger.

While some have expressed mild concern after he posted some inconsistent numbers in December and January, what he’s produced as a young player participating in his first full season of NHL action is very impressive. His performance during the 2020-21 campaign will be very interesting to monitor. With only next season remaining on his current ELC, how he fares in what is sure to be an expanded role will be key in determining his next contract. Aside from Rasmus Dahlin, Jokiharju will be the most interesting pending RFA to keep an eye on a year from now.

In terms of where he can improve, one thing to look at is overall endurance. He’s only registering an average of 17:15 minutes of ice time per game (almost two minutes fewer than he averaged in his half-season stint with the Blackhawks last season). If the Sabres plan to unload one or more veteran assets from the defensive ranks this summer (which seems like a near certainty at this point), his conditioning will need to be up to snuff.

All things considered, Jokiharju has been everything as advertised. His presence on the Buffalo blue line for the foreseeable suture should have fans in Western New York very excited. While there’s still work to be done as it pertains to consistency, as a young player in a defensive system, it’s tough not to be happy with what he’s shown so far.

TOI and Deployment Metrics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick

Unblocked Shot-Rate Metrics courtesy of Hockeyviz

xG Ranking, xGF Over Time, and Corsi ranking Charts courtesy of Charting Hockey